Photography & Participation: How Photovoice Engages and Rebuilds Communities

What is the role of photography in community engagement? How can increased engagement lead to effective community rebuilding and development? Photovoice, a participatory research process, provides opportunities for community members to tell their own stories through photography. This approach can serve as a bridge between underrepresented, marginalized, or disaster-impacted communities to share information with policy makers and other leaders. Artists are in a unique position to creatively connect the needs of a community to those who have the resources to meet those needs. This is the third in a series about the role of artists in disaster management and resilience. See the first story here and the second story here.

Art & Advocacy

“There’s nothing more radical than beauty,” states Dr. Mary Ann Burris. From 1991 to 1992, Burris worked as a Program Officer for Women’s Health with the Ford Foundation. She was assigned to assess rural women’s needs in Yunan Province, China and was looking for a way to meet her mandate to identify and address the needs of the women in a way that was beautiful, creative, and did not harm the community. It was there that she and her project partner Caroline C. Wang developed Photovoice, a participatory research process.

Burris and Wang decided to give the women cameras as a way to communicate about their lives, needs, and desires. Each month they would collect the film, print it, and bring it back to the group to conduct conversations around the photos. After a series of discussions, the photos were gathered into a collection for a presentation by the women to leadership officials including the Ministries of Education, Health, and the Women’s Federation. One woman shared a photograph of a nine-year-old girl staying home from school to take care of her younger brother.  Burris recalls the Minister of Education asserting that the county in which the photo was taken had a recorded 98% attendance in school. The women responded by informing him that the village is notified prior to the visit from the Ministry of Education and they send their children to school to be counted. Additional photos showed a rat floating in a water source that led to the closing of a factory that was polluting the water in the area.

Burris reflects that when the women had the photographs, “there was such a huge powerful differential that they were completely disarming, they just told the truth.” The women advocated for change in their communities because they shared irrefutable stories and evidence from their lives. The process of sharing photographs and stories served as a bridge between the lives of the women and the lives of those creating and implementing policies that impacted their community. “Caroline and I called that ‘Photovoice’ because it was really about the voices. It was really, in that instance, about the stories that those women had to tell about their lives, about their work lives, about their health, about their families,” Burris recalls.

Since its initial development by Burris and Wang, Photovoice has spread as a practice and concept, with many different organizations adapting it for use. A resource for organizations working with Photovoice is the Community Tool Box, a public service of the University of Kansas. Christina M. Holt, Associate Director for Community Tool Box Services, oversees community assessment and evaluation resources such as Implementing Photovoice in Your Community. “We really believe that the most effective and powerful community assessments are those that don’t just draw upon numbers and data, which certainly tell part of the story but don’t tell the story necessarily in a way that connects with hearts,” Holt explains about the value of Photovoice. “You have images and a more personal way to tell the story that can move people to action. This is a method, in addition to powerful quotes from individuals, to help personalize the experiences that people face in the community.”

Resourceful & Responsive Rebuilding  

Personalizing the experiences of community members is why Minneapolis-based nonprofit youth advocacy and mentoring organization EDIT turned to Photovoice. The organization has worked with disaster-impacted communities as part of their youth programming in service learning, leadership, and the arts. In the fall of 2011, Executive Director Ben Cooney met with a group of 16 youth to determine a community issue important to them. Many of the youth were from North Minneapolis and had experienced the trauma of the May 22, 2011 tornado, which left an estimated $80 million of damage across 3,700 properties. Quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Director of Housing and Fire Inspections for the City of Minneapolis Thomas Deegan said, “Given the geographic impact, this is the worst we have seen in a natural disaster in the city in the last generation.”

The youth in the EDIT program shared their experience of community collaboration in the aftermath of the tornado, when there was an initial surge of volunteers and help. They noted, though, that as time passed the initial connections and support faded while rebuilding challenges persisted. The youth identified photography as a way to share both the progress and unmet needs of their community. Cooney explains, “Youth decided to focus on the tornado because it was prevalent in their lives. Youth decided to bring back volunteers. Youth decided to use photography.”

Cooney borrowed cameras from family and friends, taught the teens camera basics, and led a photojournalistic expedition throughout the neighborhood. Participants took and edited photos of destroyed houses, fallen trees, and a portion of the 8,500 feet of sidewalk that was damaged. They also interviewed community members, volunteers, and workers about what they were witnessing and what needs they saw in the community.

In January 2012, EDIT held a forum, fundraiser, and gallery exhibition displaying photos that captured both areas that had progressed and areas in need of improvement in North Minneapolis. The work drew media coverage, resources, and people back into the neighborhood. The exhibition was titled “Of Sadness and Hope,” encompassing the participant’s journey from initial sadness due to the ongoing need to rebuild to incorporating hope as they experienced people working to actively improve their neighborhood.

At the time EDIT executed the first project, Cooney had never heard of the Photovoice process.  After discovering the process he realized the youth-led participatory photography approach had created a program incorporating Photovoice practices and principles, and they have since completed seven Photovoice projects. Cooney encourages would-be practitioners, saying, “The best advice I can give it is just do it, just start, just start taking pictures, even if you don’t know how to take a picture yet. It’s not waiting for all the resources to come to you, it’s making do with the resources you have.”

One evaluative measure EDIT utilizes to assess community impact is to ask youth before and after participation in their programs to reply to the statement “I am an artist.” Cooney shares that this is a “simple statement but being able to say that with confidence is an important statement piece. It not only shows the level of arts understanding…it also shows confidence and empowerment. It shows a level of self worth that they believe in themselves and they believe that what they’ve done is making an impact and telling a story, which is what all art does.”  Assessing all of EDIT’s programs after participation, 100% of participants considered themselves artists, compared to only 29% before participation with EDIT. They also stress the importance of arts accessibility as some participants have never held a camera and others have never had photography lessons.

In claiming the identity of “artist,” Cooney strives to help youth unlearn ingrained notions of identity. “When I was very young, I loved drawing, building, painting, and experimenting artistically. As I went through middle and high school, however, I ‘learned’ that I wasn’t an artist, so I stopped trying,” Cooney reveals. “It wasn’t until college when I joined a performing arts group that I fell back in love with art. I now practice art in as many forms as possible: photography, woodworking, mixed media, performance, spoken word, music, culinary arts. I am back to my early days of arts experimentation. One of my ultimate goals with EDIT is to teach youth that they are artists. I don’t want youth to get art trained out of them like it was to me.”

Strength in Sharing

As Cooney utilizes Photovoice to encourage youth to step into roles as leaders, artists, and to share their gifts with their communities, Burris observes, “I find this everywhere I’ve worked in the world: once people understand that they are safe to share, it’s amazing what happens.” Burris does caution that those working with healing, recovery, and rebuilding art forms need to be cautious in their approach with communities. Burris stresses, “You don’t want to be voyeur on somebody’s pain; that doesn’t help them. You don’t want to be in a situation where you are asking somebody about their trauma or losing their home in any way that isn’t nourishing for them because it makes it worse. It’s a very dangerous tool if it’s not used sensitively. You have to understand the power of that kind of expression so you hold it tenderly and you make sure it’s in a safe environment.”

Within safe environments, sharing is key to utilizing art in community development. Sharing and discussing photographs provides opportunity for “listening into speech,” for people to exercise their voices, and create connections among community members. Photovoice can serve as vehicle to create from what has been destroyed; focus on what has been neglected; and fuse communities that are disjointed.  Burris reiterates, “It’s just all to say that art has that kind of power to give voice, to help heal, to create community. You’re resilient if you’re a team. You’re resilient if you’re connected.”

Amelia Brown is an artist and consultant with more than 20 years of community development experience spanning four continents. Emergency Arts is a central resource dedicated to building a cross-sector network, strengthening community resilience, and advancing arts as integral to emergency management.